American Airlines’ 2005 Fuel Costs: $5 Billion

The ineptitude of the major domestic airlines continues to amaze me. There are some things these companies cannot control; their unions, for example. However, the management teams of United, American, Delta, and US Air are most to blame for extremely poor operations, and as a result, a lack of profitability. In fact, the airline industry since inception has a cumulative net loss. That’s right, they haven’t made a dime.

So, you would think that if there were things you could control as the CEO of a major airline, you would. I am referring to fuel costs. You can hedge fuel costs. You can lock in prices for certain amounts of fuel, deliverable by a certain date in the future. In the world we live in today, you would think the major airlines would have hedged much of their future fuel needs, especially when these companies are losing money hand over fist and United and US Air are in Chapter 11.

Amazingly, American Airlines has hedged only 15% of its fuel costs for the first quarter of 2005. With oil futures hitting a record $57 per barrel this week, that could be disasterous for the company’s bottom line. To make matters worse, hedging beyond March was recently characterized as “minimal” by American’s CEO. He added that total fuel expense for 2005 could hit $5 billion in 2005, if prices remain high. American is only expected to have $19 billion in revenue this year, so 26% of that is paying for gasoline.

If oil keeps rising, it’s hard to see how this industry can avoid having more well-known carriers headed back to bankruptcy court.

Full Disclosure: I am short American Airlines (AMR) stock and own Delta (DAL) puts.

GE Capital Pulls GM’s Credit Facility

Yields on General Motors (GM) long-term corporate bonds jumped to over 10% in early trading this morning on news that GE Capital has pulled its credit facility. The bonds have rallied slightly off the lows, as traders take into account GM’s various other sources of liquidity.

Other notables:

Electronic Arts (ERTS) is down $9 after warning on 2005 EPS and projecting 2006 profits would be roughly flat year-over-year. Although the shares are getting slammed today, the valuation still doesn’t look all that compelling.

Martha Stewart Living (MSO) is nearing my $20 target price for taking profit on the Sep 05 $45 puts. I don’t think the stock looks attractive here, but at some point you just have to take your money off the table to avoid being too piggish. If there was any stock available to borrow (there isn’t), I’d like to short it with some of the put option proceeds.

As Predicted, Ask Jeeves Gets Bought

As predicted on this blog about a month ago, Ask Jeeves (ASKJ) has received a takeover bid from Barry Diller’s InterActiveCorp (IACI). InterActive has been purchasing Internet companies for years, having already gobbled up the likes of Expedia, Travelocity, Hotels.com, Ticketmaster, and Lending Tree. Diller’s company paying about $1.85 billion for ASKJ, a nearly 20 percent premium to the stock’s closing price last Friday.

While some may express concern that InterActive is overpaying, as I talked about in mid-February, one look at ASKJ’s financials shows how they are able to pay such a price and still see the deal as strategically sound. Even at $28 per share, ASKJ is only being valued at 20 times 2005 earnings.

Okay, so that deal is done. If you own ASKJ, well done. If not, are there any other similar opportunities? Well, the other stock I mentioned along with ASKJ last month was InfoSpace (INSP). Shares of this company have actually dropped a bit since I highlighted them, as they now fetch $38 instead of $41 each. InfoSpace is trading at an enterpise value-to-earnings multiple of 16.4x 2005 estimates. Looking at 2006 numbers, that multiple drops to 12.6x!

Interestingly, even though Ask Jeeves is getting all the headlines today, InfoSpace shares are actually cheaper. In fact, they look like a steal to me at $38 each.

Maytag Needs A Repair Man

Take a look at this chart of Maytag (MYG) stock. Talk about brutal. The analysts hate it. More sell recommendations than all other ratings combined. It’s the kind of situation that gets a contrarian’s attention. I’ve yet to buy the stock, but it will be something I plan to look at very closely in coming days, as the stock looks too cheap despite its problems. Anybody have any thoughts on MYG? Let me know!

GM Profit Warning Hits the Dow

General Motors (GM) shares are down $4 and account for more than half of the Dow’s 50-point loss this morning. Nobody should be surprised by this earnings warning. The U.S. auto makers are getting crushed by foreign competitors, and that phenomenon is nothing new. GM and Ford (F) rely on their financing divisions for the majority of their profits. In fact, I read somewhere a few months back that GM makes a profit of only $300 on each car sold (not including the loan GMAC extends to the buyer).

Companies like Toyota (TM) will continue to take market share in the United States. If you want to buy an automobile stock, buy that one. I know GM and Ford pay hefty dividends, but there are many other places to get that type of yield, and you won’t have to worry about capital depreciation. If you are leary of giving up on the domestic auto companies at these lowly levels, consider GM’s corporate bonds. That paper is paying more than 9% interest and comes with less risk than the common shares.

Hottest Trend in Retailing: Department Stores?

Group 1: Best Buy, Walmart, Target, Home Depot, Lowes.

Group 2: Federated, May, Kmart, Sears, JC Penney.

Rewind the investment landscape a year and see which retailers Wall Street was talking about. It was the first group of companies listed above. However, nowadays it’s the second group that is getting all of the attention.

First it was Kmart buying Sears. That was supposed to be a unique situation. Kmart had come out of bankruptcy. Eddie Lambert already owned a chunk of Sears, so it made sense to buy the rest with the fortune he was making on his contrarian purchase of Kmart. Kmart owns most of its locations and has cheap lease agreements dating back decades for the rest of its attractive off-mall locations. However, once the real estate strategy was uncovered by Kmart, Wall Street analysts turned their attention to every other major retailer to try and quantify how much hidden value was there.

Federated recently announced they were buying fellow mall-based department store giant May. The stock have been on fire ever since. JC Penney has jumped 25% since rumors of that deal heated up. All of the sudden, department stores in malls across the country are the hottest investment idea in retail. But does this make any sense? Will every retail merger result in a Kmart-like jump in shareholder value?

Not likely. Merging two poorly-run retailers does not create a larger better-run, more profitable company. Shoppers have abandoned mall department stores over the years for good reason. And they’re not coming back. The attractiveness of the Kmart/Sears deal is less about improved operations as it is about creating shareholder value via other means. This will be done by selling real estate and other non-core assets. Sears can sell its stake in Sears Canada and its Lands End subsidiary. Kmart can sell more store locations since there is usually a Sears within a few miles of Kmart. The cash flow is not going to come from an influx of new customers beating down the doors of the recently renovated Kmart store that now is called Sears and carries Craftsman tools.

Why then, are the share prices of Federated, May, and Penney through the roof? It’s a valid question. A lot of people think every retailer can harness the Sears/Kmart model. If that was the case, wouldn’t they all have done it long ago? To show how speculative some investors have gotten, you only need to look at rumors that helped Circuit City stock rally. They were rumored to be looking at selling some of their real estate, given their dismal track record competing with Best Buy. Only one problem, though. Circuit City doesn’t own any real estate, they lease their stores.

I would be leary of the rallies in Federated/May and JC Penney. I hope they can get their acts together and increase profitability. It just seems unlikely that the people that have driven customers away and created an abundance of poorly-run and unappealing department stores would all of the sudden be able to turn their companies into gold, simply by merging and trying to duplicate someone else’s strategy.

Kmart Gets Another Nod from UBS

With hundreds of investment firms employing thousands of equity research analysts, you would think Wall Street would be paying a little more attention to Kmart (KMRT). How many analysts do you think cover the company? I bet very few people would say only one, but they’d be right. What sets UBS retail analyst Gary Balter apart, even moreso than his lack of fellow Kmart followers, is his track record.

Balter initiated coverage of Kmart with a “buy” rating on April 4, 2004. Back then, investors thought he was crazy. After emerging from bankruptcy, KMRT shares rose from $15 to $41 before Balter recommended them to investors. Baffled by such a move, given Kmart’s horrible track record as a money-losing retailer, people ignored Balter’s advice and many shorted the stock. That was a decision many would live to regret.

Balter was one of the few who realized that not only did Kmart rid itself of its massive debt load after its reorganization, but that its real estate was a hidden crown jewel. As the company began to sell off some valuable stores to the likes of Home Depot and Sears, investors began to realize that Kmart had potential for a monumental turnaround. Short sellers were forced to cover their positions, and investors who listened to Gary Balter and bought the stock in the low 40’s saw it soar to $109 per share by November of last year.

At that point, Balter pulled his buy rating on Kmart, reducing shares to “neutral” after the stock had jumped more than 150% since his initial recommendation and announced plans to acquire Sears. Concerns over merger integration and short selling by arbitrageurs proved the UBS downgrade to be very timely. The stock, after hitting nearly $120 when the merger was announced, fell to as low as $86 within several weeks.

In early January, I wrote a piece alerting readers that KMRT (then at $92 per share) was a smart buy amid the merger-related concerns. Once the deal closed in late March, shorts would be forced to cover and more value in the Kmart/Sears combination could be realized. Since then, the stock has risen to $112, with the deal expected to close within weeks. Tonight, sensing the deal will prove to be a success, Gary Balter is once again slapping a “buy” rating on Kmart stock, raising his price target to $160 per share. The stock is trading up $7 in after-hours trading as a result.

Investors can choose to continue to voice skepticism about the Kmart/Sears combination, but betting against Balter at this point seems risky. Eddie Lampert, the chairman and majority shareholder of the combined company, has a great track record in retail and should be able to improve operations and sell off more real estate to unlock value for all KMRT shareholders, himself included.

Below is a 1-year chart of KMRT stock. Balter’s initial recommendation, subsequent downgrade, and latest upgrade are labeled A, B, and C.

Has Oil Peaked?

Everybody is talking about oil and a potential double-top after the commodity failed to break through $55 a barrel in yesterday’s trading. Nobody can really predict these short-term movements, and enough people look at charts that we might not see $60 near-term. Even if we get a pullback in oil prices on technical trading, I doubt that is the end of high oil prices. Any meaningful pullback should be bought as far as the energy stocks are concerned, just as a run above $55 presents a good opportunity to take some profit off the table.

High oil prices are here to stay, contrary to many people who blame the current escalated priced to hedge fund trader speculation. We might not see a run to $60 this week or next, but I would not be surprised if we saw oil hit $60 before it drops to $40 per barrel. When picking stocks in the group, focus on those companies that not only do well with prices high, but will have strong production growth as well, so when prices do give back some ground, their earnings won’t collapse.

BSX Hits New Low

Shares of medical device maker Boston Scientific (BSX) are hitting new lows today at $29 per share. The stock now trades at less than 14 times this year’s expected earnings, despite being the leading maker of a new class of heart devices known as drug-eluting stents. These new stents are coated with drugs that help patients heal from cardiovascular surgery and are widely becoming the de-facto standard within the industry.

As has always been the case with medical devices makers such as BSX, Guidant (GDT), St. Jude Medical (STJ), and Medtronic (MDT), competitive concerns continually drive share price fluctuations. While Boston Scientific is in the lead today, Johnson & Johnson (JNJ) has solidified the number two position and will surely be helped by its pending acquisition of Guidant. Both Medtronic and Guidant have yet to begin selling their drug-eluting stents, but they are in testing. Within a year or two, most players will have competing products on the market, cutting into Boston’s lead. Hence, BSX shares are making multi-year lows today.

The good news though, is that the number of competitors is decreasing due to consolidation in the industry. The medical device market is still growing at a double digit clip annually. Although BSX’s stent market share will likely decline in coming years, the company will remain a strong competitor and currently trades at a steep discount to the other companies in the industry. The stock’s near-term momentum is definitely down, but investors should keep a close eye on Boston Scientific, as an opportune time to buy the beaten-down shares will most likely present itself at some point in the future.